Feeling Christmassy... and trying to fit in all Switzerland's Christmas Markets

Einsiedeln was high on my list of Christmas markets to pack into one of the very few weekends remaining before Christmas. Indeed, what could be more christmassy than a Christkindlmarkt in a moonlit, snow-carpeted square beneath a Benedictine monastery?

Yesterday evening, as our train glided yet closer to the village on a plateau in Canton Schwyz, the snow cover thickened and the scene looked as if taken straight from a Christmas card. Einsiedeln itself isn't too pretty - for the most part, the buildings are boring and purpose-built - but it really proved worth a visit when we entered the square beneath Einsiedeln Abbey.

The two-turreted abbey presided above us, the moonlight gilding its turrets and motifs; the twinkling Christmas tree lit up the centre of the market. The stalls were generic, but some of the more interesting ones were selling local crafts, meats and cheeses. The atmosphere was warming and cheerful, with chatter in the air, despite the pop music blaring out of loud speakers that somehow didn't mirror the beauty of the scene.

There is, however, no better way to get in the mood for Christmas than to sip warm mulled wine and munch roasted chestnuts as you gaze up at summits etched in snow and feel a chill biting your toes. Which is why next weekend is to be filled with Christmas markets too. We'll be heading to Rapperswil, a Medieval town clinging to the banks of Lake Zurich that has never failed to impress in the past with its range of stalls and its quaint atmosphere after dark. Then we'll be journeying to Basel - to visit Switzerland's largest Christmas market. Let's just hope we're not Christmassed-out by 25th December!

Innsbruck's Piano Bar: You have not been served ...

People who know me know what a perfectionist I am. Good enough is never good enough; and I am extremely difficult to please. I am disappointed when high standards are not met, yet never did I expect to be disappointed in what has been my favourite restaurant in Europe: Piano Bar in Innsbruck's Altstadt (Innsbruck Old Town), famed for its steak. Tim and I dined there at the weekend, during a quick visit to the city in the Alps to celebrate our four-year anniversary.

The weather was beautiful, Innsbruck looked glorious as always, and we caught up with some fantastic old friends. We walked up and down the River Inn in blinding sunshine, in awe of the majestic profile of the snowy Nordkette mountain range. We munched crepes as we wandered around the Altstadt Christmas market, which is dominated by a vast Christmas tree beneath the Golden Roof; and sipped Gluehwein as the sun dipped behind the mountains and the Christmas lights began to twinkle. We even journeyed to Hall-in-Tirol to enjoy the 15th-century town's more traditional Christmas market, with its understated decorations and craft stalls. It was turning out to be a truly magical weekend.

Then, on Sunday, we arrived full of anticipation and excitement at Piano Bar for lunch. The restaurant is cave-like and, with its haphazard artwork strewn across the walls and dark wood furniture, could have been taken from downtown Vienna. What's more, we have always enjoyed characterful service and excellent food. We were greeted by a quirky waiter as always - slicked back hair, garishly striped shirt with extravagant braces. Nothing has changed, we thought with glee. He took our order promptly, commenting how hungry we must be.

Then we waited ... and waited ... and waited... Certainly, it is a sign of quality and fresh preparation that meals take a while to be served, and we knew that to be the case at Piano Bar. We weren't in a hurry, so we waited some more, knowing the food would be excellent when it arrived ... but after waiting for an hour and still seeing no sign of even our salads - although customers who had arrived later than us had already received their main courses - we started to worry. I called over the waiter and politely asked if he knew how much longer we would have to wait. We were keen to get outside and enjoy the sunshine again. He put up his hands in surrender, bowing in that slimy way characteristic of Basil Fawlty, and telling me that he couldn't control which meals the chef prepared first.

Anyway, our salads promptly arrived after that - and meanwhile we had noticed other unsatisfied customers leaving because their orders had not been taken or they had been left waiting like us. We munched our salads, hoping the main courses would soon arrive. "15 minutes" announced the waiter, bowing to us in that preening manner akin to Fawlty. He offered us a glass of Prosecco on the house in the meantime - a nice gesture, but not really good enough. "Two minutes!" he shouted, patronisingly keeping us abreast of the schedule.

A meal did arrive as announced - it just wasn't what we had ordered. As someone who doesn't eat ham, I was offended to have received a ham roesti (potato cake). "We didn't order this," I said politely. He snapped back: "Well, this is the quickest thing to prepare. You can't expect to get food quickly and get what you ordered." You call getting our meals after 90 minutes quick? You think we were prepared to pay for a meal in a restaurant to get a lucky dip from the menu? No, thank you. Sorry Piano Bar, you've fallen in my estimations. Good enough is not good enough - and that wasn't even close to satisfactory. Future customers beware: read the menu, choose what you want, and expect excellent food, but keep in mind that invisible little star that links to the invisible little small print: Customers may expect to receive any or all of the above, depending on the humour of our chef.

Basel Autumn Fair 2013

I have always been fond of Basel - and especially in the autumn. The terracotta spires of the Minster rise from a golden canopy of leaves and the winding Rhine reflects the autumn colours in a surface broken only by the occasional boat. The city looks particularly charming over the two weeks of its Herbstmesse (Autumn Fair). The big wheel pokes over the sloping medieval rooftops, enhancing the city's skyline; a swinging pendulum thrusts above Kasernenplatz, its passengers screaming in delight.

The Herbstmesse was founded around 500 years ago and nowadays is huge, spreading over seven of the city's squares. Yesterday, while visiting the fair, Tim and I munched seriously tasty crepes (filled with melted ground chocolate instead of Nutella) and enjoyed a few leisurely rounds on the big wheel. We inhaled the sweet smells of waffles cooking mingled with the earthy scent of roasting chestnuts. Tim went thrill seeking on that swinging pendulum, and then we wandered back along the Rhine as the sun began to dip behind the city. If, like me, fairground rides strike fear into your heart, the atmosphere of the Fair is the reason to visit: the smells, the laughter, the excited screams from the rides, the soft smoke in the air... Here are some snaps from our visit.


Beautiful despite the rain: Snaps from a wet weekend on Arran

The Isle of Arran never fails to astound with its unspoilt beauty and enchanting profile. Though Tim and I paid just a short visit to the island off the west coast of Scotland - to stay at Lochranza Caravan and Campsite and visit my mum - we felt removed from real life within hours of being there. Rain tumbled, sometimes drizzly, othertimes driving, most days - but it didn't matter. We managed to mountain bike (from Lamlash up and through the woodland to Kilmory), take a trip in Mum and Nigel's RIB (a speeding trip - bumping over waves - to the prehistoric giant millipede tracks close to Fairy Dell), sea kayak from Corrie to Sannox, walk to the prehistoric Cup-and-ring marks (a form of prehistoric art) above Brodick and hike down Glen Sannox and up over the Saddle down into Glen Rosa - and we spotted red squirrels, golden eagles, sea otters and seals to boot.

We ate well, too, nibbling delicious home made cakes at The Old Pier Tearoom in Lamlash, and honouring our last evening with scrumptious pub food at Lochranza Hotel (I had beer-battered Haddock - yum!). At night, we could hear stags roaring - the rut was coming to an end. The island gleamed golden and burnt umber against the steely skies; the sea was gunmetal grey - a cold contrast to the island in all its autumnal glory. A short escape to Arran is always worth it - especially if all you want is to feel truly alive for a few days.


Time slip: A wet weekend in Valle Bavona ... in pictures

Valle Bavona is one of the steepest and narrowest valleys in the Alps - and, apart from one of its 12 hamlets, it is not connected to the national grid. Tim and I recently had the pleasure of experiencing its 16th-century cottages, roaring waterfalls, vast forests, and peace and quiet - we fell asleep in perfect darkness to the hooting of a lone owl. I have written all about it for the National Geographic Traveller blog, but in the meantime, here are some pictures...
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